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So The Plague is wreaking havoc on the world's population. Maybe Super Flu has killed millions, or some unknown biological agent is causing people to snap and kill each other. Heck, maybe we even have a good old fashioned Zombie Apocalypse on our hands. Either way, it's safe to say that for most of humanity, these are not fun times. How could things get much worse, you ask?
By the revelation that the disease in question has been manufactured, genetically altered, and possibly even distributed by humans. The untold amount of death and destruction has been directly caused by the foolish or malicious action of Man himself.
It may have been designed for use as a biological weapon, or an unexpected result of an experiment gone wrong. Perhaps we just shouldn't have let monkeys watch TV for too long. However it came to be, it has now been unleashed by humanity at large, and has almost certainly gone far beyond what its designers had originally intended.
In works that involve these types of diseases, expect an Aesop about the hubris of man, and the evils of unchecked science. In most cases, those behind the creation of the disease will often fall victim to it as well, either directly or indirectly. Scientists who worked on the original project may cry out "My God, What Have I Done?"
Synthetic Plagues are favorite weapons of Mad Scientists and Plaguemasters alike. Note that in works where multiple sentient, technologically advanced species exist, any disease created by one of those species would qualify. The key defining point in this case is that the disease in question does not occur naturally, but is instead created or nudged along by intelligent creatures.
Anime & Manga
- This is the sub-plot in the anime Highlander the Search For Vengeance, where Marcus has released a virus over New York to wipe out all of people who haven't conformed to his ancient Roman ideals. The virus only had an 80% kill rate but by the end of the movie he's managed to make a 100% version.
- The blood plague from Twentieth Century Boys is one of these, as it is continuously strengthened throughout the series to cause ever greater devastation.
- The 'Monkey Business' virus from Cowboy Bebop. Fortunately, our intrepid heroes made sure the only victims were the eco-terrorists who planned to unleash it in the first place.
- The Hate Plague in Dead Air is revealed by the terrorist who unleashed it to have been created by the U.S. Government, originally for use as a Depopulation Bomb against enemy cities in the Middle East.
- Similarly, the Hate Plague in 28 Days Later (and its sequel Twenty Eight Weeks Later) was caused by researchers looking for a way to calm down angry persons. It flew the other way. Horribly.
- In I Am Legend, the infection that wiped out most humans was the result of a supposed cure for cancer that ended up going horribly wrong.
- The Resident Evil series. The release of the T virus in the 2nd movie Resident Evil Apocalypse caused mass death by the time of Resident Evil Extinction.
- In Quarantine, the rabies infecting everyone in the building is revealed to be a "super rabies" created by an apocalyptic cult.
- The hemophage virus in Ultraviolet was engineered, and the scientist responsible goes on to take over the world using the infected as a bogeyman.
- In L: Change the World, Blue Ship, a terrorist group, manufactures an extremely dangerous virus in order to wipe out humanity and restore balance in the ecosystem.
- In the film version of V for Vendetta, the St. Mary's Virus was a major factor in Norsefire's rise to power. Blamed on religious extremists, it's later revealed that the government developed it through experiments conducted on prisoners at the Lark Hill detention facility, and chose to attack their own people to create an environment of fear that would cause the people to give the goverment more power.
- To be fair, the scientists in Rise of the Planet of the Apes weren't trying to create a Synthetic Plague, they were trying to create a cure for Alzheimer's. Unfortunately for them, not only did the ALZ-113 give sentience and super-intelligence to apes, it was fatal to humans. And it was an airborne virus. Nice Job Breaking It, Hero.
- The Hate Plague in The Crazies was created by the US government as a biological weapon against hostile populations. Then the plane carrying it ends up crashing in a lake used by a local small town for drinking water.
- The Operator in Duumvirate creates at least five of these. The book ends when it's time to unleash them.
- The Stand: The "super flu" which kills 99 percent of the world population nearly overnight was the result of military weapons experiments in the United States, and was released when a lab accident caused it to be spread throughout the military base it was being stored. Later in the book, the demonic Randall Flagg reveals that other man-made viruses such as super Ebola are in the works to kill the remaining members of the "good" side of humanity.
- It gets worse (morally speaking). Not only did the U.S. accidently get itself horribly infected, when the military officers in charge of the base where the accident happened decide that there's no putting the cat back in the bag, they order operatives in Europe and Asia to purposefully release the plague over there, under the "if we go down we're taking you all with us" theory. They note that the operatives think the containers they're supposed to open contain radioactive particles for use in testing the ability of satellites to track them, or something.
- In The Dark Tower, however, Flagg actually takes credit for the plague himself, though he's silent on the details- he was probably the one responsible for the "accident", but he may or may not have had anything to do with its creation.
- Christopher Anvil's The Steel, the Mist and the Blazing Sun. The U.S. develops a bug that can cure diabetes by producing insulin. Unfortunately it infects non-diabetics too, causing them to go into insulin shock.
- Greg Bear's Blood Music. Artificial lymphocytes convert the entire biomass of North America into versions of themselves.
- Frank Herbert's The White Plague. An genetically engineered disease kills women over large areas (it's spread by men acting as unwitting carriers).
- Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. An artificially created disease wipes out most of the human race.
- Alistair MacLean's The Satan Bug involves the protagonist trying to save humanity from annihilation by preventing the release of such a doomsday disease.
- Similarly, Clive Cussler's Vixen 03 involves a race to stop the release of a bio-weapon that is projected to be able to kill up to 98% of all human life.
- In Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six, one of the eponymous black-ops team's targets is an eco-terrorist group that plans to release a modified version of the Ebola virus, code-named "Shiva".
- Twice - the second half of their plan is to distribute a fake vaccine (that's actually still the virus) in order to make sure it gets distributed as fully as possible. They're pretty devious, in that they'll distribute two versions of the vaccine: one that works and one that really, really doesn't; the purpose of the first is both to fool the general populace into thinking that they're getting the cure, and to save themselves and the few people they deem necessary for building an environmentally-friendly future. They come very close to succeeding, too.
- Patient Zero has a virus they call the Sword of Allah that pretty much is a weaponized form of The Virus that causes Zombie Apocalypse.
- The premise of the book The Breeds Of Man has a cure for AIDs becoming a fresh plague in it's own right, a Sterility Plague which affects more people than AIDs ever did. (Nice Job Breaking It Scientists).
- The eponymous disease in The Changeling Plague was engineered to be a cure for cystic fibrosis, but the virus mutated and went out of control.
- During the New Jedi Order series of Star Wars books, the war against the Yuuzhan Vong goes badly enough that a synthetic plague called "Alpha Red" is created, which specifically targets the Vong and their Organic Technology, killing them within days. It is deemed unethical, and condemned by the heroes, but still gets released here and there by certain elements in the Alliance.
- Earlier, in the X Wing Series, the Krytos virus was engineered by the Empire to kill off non-humans in as squicktackular a method as possible.
- The Young Jedi Knights series' second arc featured similar plague... aimed at humans and humans only. The Diversity Alliance's insane leader sought to find and unleash it.
- In Mira Grant's Newsflesh trilogy, the Zombie Apocalypse was triggered by the interaction of two synthetic viruses designed to cure cancer and the common cold.
- In the Plague Year Series, the nanotech plague/GreyGoo that befalls humanity was originally intended as a cure for cancer; it worked by dismantling the cancer cells. By the time they figured out that it dismantled a little too well, it had already escaped containment.
- Star Trek: New Frontier has the Redeemer virus, a plague engineered by the Redeemers and carried in their High Priests' blood, so that any non-natural death wipes out everything on the planet he died on within a few days. Naturally, said High Priests are stationed on newly "redeemed" planets, and occasionally (as in Dark Allies) used as a weapon of influence.
- In The Dresden Files novel Death Masks, creating a magical plague like this is the objective of Nicodemus, using the magical power of the Shroud of Turin. Nicodemus isn't doing it for any reason beyond to cause chaos and death, which he views as its own end.
- In Echoes of an Alien Sky by James Hogan settlers from Venus spend much of the novel figuring out where Terrans went, and why they look like them. Turns out they are descended from Terrans, ones sent away right before the Earth was overwhelmed by a Plague. Even more Horrible when one realizes the virus was meant to be genocidal, and it causes the effects of Zombie Rabies essentially. Even the technique used to get away was so experimental that the Venusians didn't think Terrans had found it yet.
- In the Dune prequels, there's the Omnius Plague, released by the Thinking Machines against the League worlds. It wasn't actually designed by machines but by an exiled Tlulaxa scientist. The plague ends up devastating the human worlds, killing billions and mutates into an even deadlier form on Rossak. While a cure is never discovered, Doctors Mohandas Suk and Raquella Berto-Anirul discover that spice can be used to resist the effects of the plague. As a result, the entire known galaxy is now dependend on spice for survival.
- David Patneaude's Epitaph Road has this. It's discovered the plague, Elisha's Bear, that killed many of the men on Earth, was released by a fanatical woman.
- The Wild Boy-the virus created and released by the Lindauzi. Everyone thought they were humanity's saviors, but later, Ilox found the truth.
Live Action TV
- In Terry Nation's Survivors, the plague that kills most of the human race was the result of a lab accident.
- In the original series, it was clearly an accident (as shown in the credit sequence). In the 2000 series, it was suggested that it might have been deliberately released, but the series was cancelled before this idea was developed.
- Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: In an attempt to end the Dominion War, Section 31 creates a disease and uses Odo as a carrier to spread it to the Founders.
- Several episodes of the 1995 revival series of The Outer Limits feature wholly artificial or genetically altered diseases.
- The Cordilla virus from season 3 of 24.
- The plot of the short-lived Babylon 5 spin-off Crusade (following the film A Call to Arms) is that a race known as the Drakh decide to attack Earth. While they fail to destroy Earth when their Planetkiller is destroyed, their Plan B is to release a deadly and highly virulent plague on Earth to wipe out the majority of humanity. Later on, it's discovered that the virus is, in fact, not only artificial but also non-biological in nature. It's actually nanites actively seeking to adapt themselves to human physiology, a process estimated to take about 5 years, during which many humans keep dying from various "mutations" of the plague. The mission of the crew of the Excalibur is to find the cure before time runs out. One episode involves a formerly-inhabited world whose denizens have mysteriously disappeared. It turns out that this was also caused by a nanite-based virus, this one being of the Hate Plague variety. It causes the infected to go berserk on anyone nearby and then snap back into normal without any memory of what happened (possibly, adding halucinations of a shadowy figure doing the dirty deed).
- The Hoffan Plague spread by Micheal in Stargate Atlantis in an effort to cripple the Wraith. For reference, a group called the Hoffans created a drug that, if taken, would render one immune to Wraith feeding, and indeed poisonous to the Wraith. It also had a 50% mortality rate among those who took it (they were aware of this, and took it anyway. The Wraith slaughtered the survivors). Micheal got a hold of it, turned it into a disease (albeit with "only" a 33% mortality rate), and spread it to as many human populations as he could in order to poison the Wraith's food supply.
- In Deus Ex, a man-made plague is used to control the populace in mankind's dystopian future, with the Orwellian government maintaining full control of the vaccine that keeps people alive.
- Everyone suspects that the plague on Omega in Mass Effect 2 is human-made, because it kills all species except humans (and Vorcha, who are immune to all disease and help spread it). However, it turns out that while it is, indeed, artificial, it was created by the Collectors to purge Omega of every race except humans, so they can harvest the latter.
- The indie game One Chance is all about this, as the player takes the role of a researcher whose team has inadvertently created an airborne pathogen that will kill all life on Earth in six days.
- Some of the graffiti in Left 4 Dead written by the unseen survivors has them making up theories that the Green Flu was made by the government as a biological weapon or some sort of conspiracy theory. If this is true or not is, for the time being, left ambiguous.
- As in the film series it spawned, Resident Evil involves fighting the horrors spawned by the Umbrella Corporation created T-Virus.
- Ever 17: The accident in the underwater amusement park is caused by Leiblich Pharmeceuticals attempting to cover up the fact that a very deadly virus they manufactured, Tief Blau, had been released within the park.
- The Blacklight Virus in Prototype was engineered by Blackwatch from the fictional naturally-occuring Redlight mutagenic virus (or vice-versa, it's not entirely clear). It was originally intended to target specific minorities, went horribly wrong, and then they decided that it'd be really awesome if they made it even more virulent. And Dr. Alex Mercer was the one that "improved" it.
- Warcraft 3's undead plague. Deliberately made by the scourge to create more minions, it took some time for the targeted humans to figure out what it was for and where it came from.
- Part of the world-ending crisis in... well, Crysis 2 was a very, very nasty disease which causes people to literally disintegrate over a period of weeks. Since the first cases came from advanced nano- and biotechnology firm Crynet's quarters, fingers were quickly pointed. Turns out they were wrong; the 'Spore,' as the virus came to be called, was a creation of the alien Ceph, intended to not only kill humans but reduce them to environmental-friendly sludge so as to minimize the ecological impact when they finally took back their world.
- Several in Sword of the Stars can be deployed by ships with "biowar" modules. Most do damage to planetary populations without destroying infrastructure or terraforming (unlike the other options) but vaccines against them are easily researched.
- Plague and Retro Plague are standard lethal diseases, Beast Bomb reduces populations to animalistic inteligence so no production is possible, and Assimilation Plague converts victims to the attacker's empire.
- The Zuul are immune to all bioweapons though, being genetically engineered soldiers after all.
- Part of the research tree in Armada 2526 allows players to research increasingly virulent artificial plagues (both biological and nanotechnology varieties) which can then be unleashed as part of a planetary invasion, with predictable damage to the ecosystem, or as part of a deliberate planet-wide eradication of populace.
- The gene plagues you can use to cull the population with in Fate of the World are this.
- Ebin and May had a case of biological warfare, but due to Fantastic Racism, it only affected the lupines as seen in this strip.
- The Greening Wars had an interesting example in the prologue. The warlord who had the viruses created wanted them to be disabling but non-lethal, to allow relatively bloodless conquests of crippled armies. Unfortunately, the Mad Scientist he hired to make the plagues believed that crippling the enemy wasn't enough, and found a way to make the viruses harmless in testing but be lethal in the field.
- In modern times, fortunately, this is mostly not Truth in Television. Biological weapons are considered far too difficult to control and too prone to backfiring; the majority of germ research is on how to maintain cures and preventative measures for such things. Chemical weapons are seen as the more practical equivalent for something that poisons an area.
- Note that there are far fewer candidates in Real Life then in fiction. Ebola outbreaks and other quick lethal diseases for example "burn out" because people get sick too quickly to spread it around very much. In a pandemic its speculated that after people start locking themselves at home the transmission would stop from quarantine. Slower diseases conversely are more survivable or treatable. There are still dangerous scenarios, but not world ending ones.
- Contrary to this trope's usual assumptions, creating a Synthetic Plague wouldn't be particularly profitable for a Corrupt Corporate Executive either: even if a government or terrorist organization were inclined to buy such a thing, they would only do so once, after which they could presumably culture more of it for themselves. Chemical agents and plain ol' guns don't breed, so repeat sales make them a far more profitable alternative for a weapons manufacturer.
- There is speculation around the world of intentionally modified viruses developed and stockpiled for biological warfare. It typically involves taking an already highly infectious and lethal agent, such as small pox, and modifying it just enough to render vaccines ineffective. No such strain has ever been used, but there have been rumors of the Soviets stockpiling such a version of small pox during the 80's (fortunately, its not around today even if they did; small pox has a self life of only a few years).
- Former Soviet bioweapons director Ken Alibek's autobiography describes "Ebolapox", with Ebola being used as a vector for smallpox—so, Ebola that gives you smallpox. He also mentions another designer pathogen which is the same thing but with Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis.